El Comandante and the “Socialist” Revolution of the Century

EspañolThe Lieutenant of San Porfirio — a novel by Joel D. Hirst — tells the story of a political revolution in a fictitious country called “Revolutionary Socialist Republic of Venezuela,” headed by the supreme leader El Comandante. Through several characters and the magic realism genre, Hirst illustrates the consequences of a military and “socialist” dictatorship, under which a polarized and impoverished society endures many hardships. These narratives weave together from different angles, with each aspect representing a historical past, purpose, set of values, and role in this political phenomenon.

It would seem that Hirst’s seven years in Venezuela were enough for him to appreciate and comprehend the country’s political complexity, as that comes to life through these characters. Hirst is from the United States, but he has lived in Venezuela on three separate occasions: 1991-1992 (during the military coups), 2000-2001, and during the period of 2004-2008. The opportunity to witness the country’s state before and after the Bolivarian revolution, and Chavez’s arrival to power, gave him personal experience with the political transformation.

el-teniente-de-san-porfirioDuring the last 15 years, Chavismo has been a source of controversy in Venezuela, and the rest of the world. There are always those who defend it as a movement that vindicates the poor against historically oppressive groups. Many even support it from abroad as a socialist ideal, without having a first-hand look into what lies beneath.

However, there are also many who oppose Chavismo. Some do so by holding on to a past political era, while others fight for a country that continues to separate itself from the status quo, and its ancestors. Hirst successfully portrays all these perspectives in the The Lieutenant.

It would be unfair to reduce a phenomenon so complex to one overbearing perspective; so Hirst successfully integrates all social and political dimensions into one exciting plot.

The novel shows an opposition divided into two sides. One side, whose political reign ended with the arrival of the revolution, is now paying the price. They still don’t understand what they did wrong or the sociopolitical process that surrounds them. Instead of learning from their mistakes, they try to revive the past. The way to establish their ideal country is to go backwards to the one they had before the revolution, and regain all they have lost.

The second group contrasts with the previous one; a generation of young students who have lived under the same regime, and know about other administrations only through stories and anecdotes told by their ancestors. They dream of a democracy they haven’t experienced yet, and a model that separates itself from the current regime, as well as the previous ones.

As a Venezuelan, one cannot help but identify with what these characters are going through. Frustration and resignation are common feelings among a group subject to a political project they are not part of. However, their hope for change prevails, regardless of what they have lost, physically and spiritually.

For those readers who may have a hard time understanding how and why this regime has lasted so long, Hirst presents the other side of the story. With an accurate description, the author clearly depicts the arguments from El Comandante‘s supporters, who are driven by resentment and protected by a paternalist state. It’s amazing to see how the populist and social-struggle discourse, as well as the never-ending promises of equality, distract them from their true necessities, and the system’s failures.

Among the high levels of poverty and insecurity, these followers don’t have anything else other than their ideals and a thirst for revenge, which push them to join an endless struggle. However, their feelings aren’t in vain, and the author illustrates well the injustices that led them to support the revolution. He also highlights hate as their main driving force, something the supreme leader perfectly learned to manipulate for political gain.

Finally, there’s an aspect of this failed state that all the characters have to live with: corruption. All individuals, no matter their political affiliation, are victims of institutional absence, where survival becomes the prevailing law of the day. Hirst’s novel paints a picture of a country very similar to one at war, and a society that has nothing left to do but survive.

Hirst portrays a society that has progressively allowed increased intervention, less individual freedom, and strengthening on the part of the government — all justified by a socialist revolutionary discourse. The Lieutenant talks about heroism, social struggle, caudillismo, and populism, where the reader won’t help but feel empathy for one of these characters, hoping that the good triumphs over evil, and the oppressed finally achieve freedom.

“Have hope. This story, our story, the story of a free and truly democratic Venezuela hasn’t come to an end yet.”

The Lieutenant of San Porfirio. Chronicle of a Bolivarian “revolution” of Joel D. Hirst, is available in English and Spanish.

Patricia Dalmasy interviews Joel Hirst in Voz de América.

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